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Friday, October 30, 2020

Banter or bullying: Microaggressions towards vegans and what to do about them

Vegans have long been the butt of plenty of jokes but seeing these moments for what they are — microaggressions — brings new focus to the ‘lighthearted’ discrimination.

I don’t remember the first ‘preachy vegan’ joke that was levelled at me, or how I felt when I presumably shrugged it off. I do, however, remember the moment that I realised a (now former) friend was discriminating against me and revelling in the ‘difficulty’ of accommodating my beliefs. Noticing all of her microaggressions was a shock and, eventually, led to me calling time on the friendship after years of underhand belittling.

Bring together a group of three or more vegans and you can bet that at least one of them has been the recipient of discriminatory behaviour. Note that I didn’t say they were a victim. While certain non-vegan writers have taken to their keyboards to jokingly compare our everyday ‘niggles’ to real oppression, most of us retain a sense of perspective. Or perhaps we’ve become so used to the little jokes, eye-rolls and dramatic sighs that our lifestyle incites that we downplay their impact. How sad if that’s the case.

What are microaggressions?

The term ‘microaggressions’ has been gaining traction in everyday language, thanks to a new willingness to call them out. It covers everything from personal digs and subtle put-downs through to negative attitudes and even physical behaviour that alludes to a difference of opinion with a traditionally stigmatised group. The most worrying examples are those that are seen as “just a joke”, with the subject of the gag being forced to either laugh along or be seen as a bad sport.

Here’s where things get really concerning though. Microaggressions can be unintentional, meaning that they are so entrenched in a person’s psyche that they think nothing of constantly putting down others. This behaviour can form the basis for a series of important relationships, making everyday life that bit harder.

Before we continue, please take a moment to remind yourself that feeling hurt, angry or disappointed by microaggressions does not make you overly sensitive or a ‘snowflake’. It makes you human and worthy of support.

Vegan-related microaggressions in the workplace

Thankfully, with the popularity of Veganuary, Meat Free Mondays and the surge in meatless supermarket ready meals, vegans aren’t an unknown anymore. That being said, there will always be those that just take inordinate amounts of umbrage at our choices, especially at work.

My husband and I often laugh about the fact that certain former colleagues were so personally offended by our decision to not eat the way they do. Surely that meant more sinew on the supermarket shelves for them? Weren’t we actually doing them a favour? It appeared not, as we were regularly treated to email attachments of bleeding burgers and frequently confronted with cries of: “But bacon though!”

It was worse for my husband. With his long hair, full beard and built physique, he wasn’t one to wear t-shirts with his ethics printed all over the front (oh, how things change!). When it was discovered that he was vegetarian and later, vegan, the feelings of betrayal from our work colleagues were intense. He wasn’t invited to team nights out as much, or if he was, was informed he would have to simply have a bowl of chips wherever they went. He was suddenly a hassle, even though he had always just chosen the fried potato option, without it ever being noticed before.

I myself faced similar microaggressions in the workplace about my vegan diet. Funny quips about there “honestly” being soy milk in my tea, with an accompanying nudge and wink, made it hard to ever truly relax. Add in constant accusations that I was wearing leather (I wasn’t) and honestly? Going self-employed was the best thing we ever did for our mental health and security in our ethical choices.

Friendships with an edge

If you’re not sure whether you’ve been subjected to vegan-related microaggressions from friends, see if you recognise any of the following comments:

“Urgh, we get it, you’re vegan.”

“You used to eat meat though.”

“You make me feel guilty eating this in front of you.”

“Don’t make me eat tofu.”

“Stop preaching, it’s my body!”

That last one was hurled at me when I gently suggested that a self-proclaimed lactose intolerant friend stop eating cheese and drinking dairy milk. Apparently, I was obliged to listen to detailed accounts of IBS flare-ups, but that was not an invitation to open a dialogue about potential solutions. Note: I never suggested going vegan.

If you’ve ever been the reason why a restaurant choice was embargoed, if you’ve heard the above comments regularly or if people really enjoy dangling bits of meat in front of you as a ‘temptation’, you’ve experienced microaggressions. You might also want to change up your friendship circle.

What can you do?

Few of us are perfect and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been a thoughtless and insensitive friend in the past, but it’s something I work on every day. Treading gently around the subjects that are deeply important to others, regardless of my opinions, isn’t hard. The standard sarcastic or funny responses that make out you’re too cool to care can be ignored and kindness can prevail, so why isn’t the same courtesy being shown to vegans, as a group?

Maybe the media can take a large part of the blame here. When loudmouthed soapboxes such as Piers Morgan have easy access to global platforms for their vitriolic speeches, what chance do we have? After all, don’t we all just need to “get a sense of humour”?

In short, no. Microaggressions are not new — they are simply not being tolerated anymore, by any marginalised groups. Hard discussions and personal growth will have to happen, but being aware of sensitivities as opposed to needing thicker skins will contribute to society becoming community, and that has to be a positive thing.

The basis of the vegan belief system is kindness — compassion to all living beings — with humans that show a lack of empathy included. Perhaps this is how we tackle microaggressions — with ‘maxikindnesses’. If bacon is your first love, good for you. I’m more of a seitan girl myself.

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